And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. Matt. 16:19 – NLT
Hello friends. This week in the service we focused on Matt. 16:24-25, but in the passage above there is an important conversation that I want to spend a little time unpacking. Matt. 16:19 is a passage that requires some attention because, without consideration, the implications of what Jesus says to Peter can be confusing or the intention of his proclamation can be skewed. What does it mean that Jesus has given Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven? How far does Peter’s authority to forbid and permit things go? Does this passage have implications for the church today, or was it confined to the apostolic age? If you have similar questions about this passage or if you’ve been confused or haven’t tracked down answers that fit, I’ve got good news for you. You’re engaging with your Bible! I love it when people really dig in and wrestle with how to understand and apply scripture. Hopefully this little article will give you some tools that you will find helpful as you engage with the words of Jesus in this passage.
As usual, in order to gain an understanding of the passage in question, it’s important to put it into context with what is going on around it.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.Matt. 16:13-19
Peter’s recognition and confession of Jesus as the Son of God shows a unique clarity about Jesus that was not demonstrated by crowds or the religious leaders in Israel. Peter and the disciples had been given this revelation of Jesus’ identity directly from the Holy Spirit. It is their faith and acceptance of the truth of Jesus’ identity that has granted them the keys to the Kingdom.
As we’ve examined the Gospel of Matthew, it’s been made clear that when Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, he is not strictly speaking about a future promise. Jesus told his disciples that he is preparing a place for them which is the hope of future glory that we so often sing about. However, there is more to God’s Kingdom than life after death – the Kingdom is a present reality for God’s people now. It is established anywhere the work of the gospel is carried out by faith. It is that Spirit given insight that makes it possible for them to pass on the truth of God’s Kingdom to others. In short, we see in this passage that Jesus was giving them instructions to launch this new thing that would be his church. However, when Jesus gave Peter authority for binding and loosing things, it introduced something that has the potential to be a confusing and even controversial issue in the life and practice of the church if we are not careful to examine and understand his intention.
For example, Matthew 16:19 is directly referenced as the basis for the doctrine of papal infallibility in the catholic church. This doctrine essentially boils down to the belief and practice that the Pope, the direct authoritative descendant of Peter as the bishop in Rome, “is enabled by God to express infallibly what the church should believe concerning questions of faith and morals when he speaks in his official capacity as ‘Christ’s vicar on earth.’” (W.C.G. Proctor and J. Van Engen, 2001) This is a doctrine that protestant and evangelical denominations do not subscribe to and it is a major bone of contention for many. If you want to get into the nitty gritty on how this doctrine came about and the logic behind it, come grab a coffee with me some time! For now, it is important to note that catholic attitudes toward the doctrine of papal infallibility have shifted in the 21st century as scholars and clergy have taken an honest look at the historical rulings from the papal throne that have been both contradictory and erroneous (Proctor and Engen).
So, to come back to the matter at hand, how are we supposed to understand Matt. 16:19 and apply it in our lives now? If all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching the truth and preparing God’s people for every good work, how are we to understand this passage? I want to offer two suggestions.
First, we need to understand it within the historical context it was given. The church as we know it had not existed up till this time. God’s covenant people, the ones responsible for showing the world what a nation that followed God looked like, had been the people of Israel since the time of Abraham. They had been given the law of God and shown what holy living required. They’d also been unable to faithfully live out the covenant relationship they’d entered into. According to Romans, this was not a failed project. Instead, Paul teaches that the law exists to demonstrate our need for God’s grace as we live in covenant relationship with him (Rom. 3:19-20). The church which Jesus established with his disciples reached beyond the nation of Israel and was built on the fulfilled covenant made possible through his life, death, and resurrection. This new covenant built on the Gospel would require insight for living informed by Spirit empowered wisdom and guidance. When Jesus made the proclamation “upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” it is possible that he was referring directly to Peter, but it is more likely that the rock he is referring is the truth of the Gospel; the Spirit given revelation that only he is the way, the truth and the life. Men are fickle, and Peter would demonstrate this just a few verses later in Matt. 16:22, but the Gospel is a firm and eternal foundation on which the church is established. When Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, it was because of the Holy Spirit’s revelation to him and the disciples. That revelation is what made it possible for Jesus to invite them into the creative process of establishing what life by faith would look like. In rhythm with the beginning of scripture where God invites the first people in the garden to join him in the ordering of creation, Jesus invites Peter and the disciples to join him in the ordering of life as a new creation made possible by faith.
Second, I want to suggest that the modern application of this passage be seen in conjunction with Psalm 37:4, Matt. 18:8, and Matt. 18:15-20 as the precedent for accountability in church community. I believe that church discipline is something that is prescribed in the Bible and that it applies strictly to those who have proclaimed faith in Jesus (1 Cor. 5:12). When it comes to living by faith, it is important that we cast off anything that holds us back from making Jesus the Lord of our lives (Matt. 18:8). The practice of church discipline can range from guiding a fellow believer back to right living (Gal. 6:1) to dissociating from someone who is harmful and unrepentant (1 Cor. 5:1-5). The authority of binding and loosing is not the ability to change doctrine and belief based on cultural norms and attitudes, it is the solemn responsibility of Christ followers to ensure that our hearts are rooted firmly in the Lordship of Jesus so that we are able to live in a loving and graceful community of accountability. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are given insight and power for holy living by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we delight ourselves with the Lord, the desires of our hearts are brought into conformity with the heart of God. When that happens, the things we desire are naturally the things of his kingdom. When someone in our fellowship is straying, we are given the responsibility to guide them back into step with Jesus, provided we are not judging them based on human traditions and standards.
Here’s an example of what this could look like in church. If someone who has professed faith in Jesus in our community were to start sharing insights that they claimed were from God but were definitely not in line with scripture, then it is appropriate to discuss those insights with that person while comparing them to the truth of scripture. This does not need to happen in a debate or in front of many people, but it can happen within a loving and trusting relationship between fellow believers. The same is true if someone is living in sin. We do not need to threaten them or wrestle with their will, but simply express our love and concern for their wellbeing if they choose to continue indulging in sin. In this way, the church is a lot less like the paranoid, dystopian surveillance state of 1984 and more akin to a group of mountain climbers tethered together to keep each other safe as they strive for the peak.
This is an important feature of church community. We need to be very careful that accountability is practiced with the greatest sense of humility before God and loving grace for one another (Col. 3:12-13). If not, we risk creating a community driven by secrets, shame and performative religious living. We need to be a community marked by the sanctifying grace of Jesus where we are accountable to one another in love and unity (Eph. 4).
When it comes to understanding and applying scripture, I value exploration, asking questions and searching for answers that are supported in the rest of scripture. This is not meant to be a definitive article that closes the door on further exploration. I invite you to continue mining the Bible to discover more.
One last thing: I want to give my sincere thanks to my friend Steve who looked over this, gave his insight and provided some wise suggestions on how to clarify the context and application.
You are loved.
(Originally published Sept. 20, 2022)
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